Where kids (and teachers) are real characters

Sycamore played host to some pretty famous people on Wednesday, March 11 during the local elementary school’s annual Biography Day.

From Egyptian royalty to Brazilian soccer legend Pelé, the students in Ann O’Connor’s second/third grade combination class channeled leaders who have made a mark on the world.

The kids dressed as their chosen heroes, with each carrying a representative prop. Eight-year-old Lucas Grannis’ beard and top hat were dead giveaways that he was emulating Abraham Lincoln. “I found out he was cool because he freed the slaves, so I decided to dress like him,” he said.

Nine-year-old Keira Gonzales wore a blonde wig to portray fearless wave-chaser Bethany Hamilton. She had one arm tucked into her rash guard swim shirt, but still managed to carry a surfboard.

“I watched a movie about her called ‘Soul Surfer.’ I really liked her, so I decided to be her,” Keira said. “I’ve tried surfing and it’s awesome.”

Quinn Smith, who came as Ghandi, made a bold move the night before, asking his mom to shave his head. Between his close-cropped hair, draped robes and walking stick, he was convincing as the leader of the Indian independence movement whose nonviolent resistance inspired Martin Luther King. In a bit of irony, his best friend was dressed as Annie Oakley, complete with a toy pistol as a prop: the sharpshooter and the pacifist.

The kids and several parents, also dressed like historic figures, began their day by sitting down for a fancy breakfast. The meal—presided over by Ms. O’Connor, dressed as Princess Grace in a satin gown, elbow-length gloves and a tiara—catered to luminaries like mountain climber Edmund Hillary and Marco Polo. The tables were decked with linens, candles and flowers and the menu included quiche, ham, bagels and fruit.

One of the kids, Ashlund Stanger, had come as Red Cross founder Clara Barton, with her lunchbox transformed into a cross-emblazoned medical kit. Her mother Stephanie, who was Sacajawea for the day, did her part to add to the occasion. She had baked sugar cookies with icing spelling out the name of each guest’s role in cursive.

Sometimes a teacher will encounter a student with a chip on her shoulder. In the case of Biography Day, Claire Smith had a chimp on her shoulder, the better to portray famed primate researcher Jane Goodall. The stuffed animal was more well-behaved than a slippery fake moustache worn by 8-year-old Jacob Watson.

Jacob had chosen Walt Disney as his subject, saying, “I really like Disneyland, especially Space Mountain.”

Noka Treuer was dressed as J.R.R. Tolkien, looking studious in a suit and carrying a copy of one of Tolkien’s pioneering fantasy novels. His dad David Treuer, dressed as President Jimmy Carter, explained his son’s character choice. “We were reading The Hobbit out loud,” he said. “He was really impressed that Tolkien was a World War II veteran and that he wrote The Hobbit because he hated war.”  

During the meal, guests watched a video presentation featuring each student narrating his or her chosen life story. The youngsters used iPads loaded with the iMovie software to create multi-media presentations, enhanced by music and photographs. Ms. O’Connor then compiled their videos into one presentation.

After recess, the Room 12 kids adjourned to Sycamore’s Redwood Grove, a charming outdoor oasis, where they gave performed monologues, making sure to stay in character. Their audience included family members as well as kids, some older and some younger, from the students’ big and little buddy classes.

Mira Steinman, 9, was Janis Joplin. While she didn’t burst into song, the second grader really got into the part of the blues-inspired rock singer known as “The Peacock of Haight Ashbury.” Her attire included bellbottoms, a peasant blouse, granny sunglasses, love beads and a boa in her hair.

Mira, who notes her favorite Janis tune is “I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama,” said she admires the fact that the performer was a visual artist as well as a singer. “She was a strong woman and her own person—a free spirit. My daughter is like that,” Mira’s mom Katherine Freedman added.

After the presentation, the kids and their parents lined up for a photograph. There was a brief verbal scuffle between J.R.R. Tolkien aka Noka and Marie Curie, with the author informing the scientist, “I don’t want to touch you. You’re radioactive.”

It was all in good fun, however, considering that Madame Curie was played by Noka’s sister Elsina. And, to be fair, Ms. Curie—who held a test tube full of luminescent wrapping paper—had confided that, because her belongings were still radioactive, none of them was in a museum.

There was plenty to learn during the students’ monologues. There when sad moments, as when Abraham Lincoln shared that “One day in 1865, I went to a play and got shot.” Janis Joplin explained that she didn’t have a very good life and died at age 27 from “an overdose of medicine.” 

There were plenty of triumphs described, however, like Jacques Cousteau’s invention of modern scuba gear such as the aqualung. Claire shared a moment from Ms. Goodall’s life that drew laughter. “I once stayed in my grandma’s chicken coop, just to see a chicken lay an egg.”

Principal Amy Stanger, no relation to Ashlund and Stephanie, said she looks forward to Biography Day every year.

“It’s just a fun way for kids to connect to their interests,” she said. “It’s also great for them to be able to study yesterday and today, comparing their lives to the lives of others.”

—Sarah Torribio



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